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Widespread DNA backlog still affecting L.A. cases

By Joel Rubin
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Dozens of police departments throughout Los Angeles County routinely have not tested DNA evidence collected in rape and sexual assault cases, and are unable to accurately account for thousands of pieces of evidence that could potentially help solve crimes, according to a report to be released today.

The county’s two behemoth law enforcement agencies -- the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department -- have come under harsh criticism in recent months for not testing about 10,000 samples of semen, saliva and other genetic material gathered from victims’ bodies after alleged attacks and for letting legal time limits pass on hundreds of cases. The report, produced by the independent group Human Rights Watch, found that the other 47 police agencies in the county are struggling with the same problems.

Rape victims “have a right to expect police to do all they can to thoroughly investigate their case, but in L.A. [County] they often feel betrayed to learn that their rape kits are never even tested,” said Sarah Tofte, the report’s author. “And in some cases, failure to test means that a rapist who could have been arrested will remain free.”

In all, the outlying police departments, which rely on the county’s crime laboratory for DNA testing without charge, were found to have nearly 2,750 of the so-called rape kits sitting untested in storage freezers -- some more than two decades old. The agencies were also estimated to have destroyed about 1,500 other kits after determining the evidence was no longer of use, the report found.

Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, expressed dismay at Tofte’s findings.

“It’s shocking,” she said. “The disregard for this evidence and the reluctance to use it in cases reflects the deep and really troubling level of discrimination that persists against victims of rape.”

Officials from several of the police departments challenged the way Tofte construed the figures, which the agencies provided in response to her requests made under the state’s Public Records Act.

The Long Beach Police Department, for example -- which is by far the largest of the 47 agencies surveyed -- failed to test more than half of the 1,900 evidence kits it has booked into storage since 1995, according to the report. Long Beach Deputy Chief William Blair, however, said that what Tofte presented as the number of untested kits there was actually the total number of kits -- tested and untested -- in storage.

“The conclusions that the report draws do not tell the true story,” he said.

Blair and officials at other agencies say the confusion is due, in large part, to outdated and inept evidence-tracking computer systems that provide no clear account of which kits have been tested, how long they have been in storage or the status of the rape cases for which the samples were collected.

As the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department did after coming under scrutiny, Blair said Long Beach police had begun a manual audit of each evidence kit. He said he was “confident” that the audit would not turn up any cases in which detectives had no suspects and had failed to have DNA evidence tested. Sheriff’s officials had made similar assurances under questioning from the county Board of Supervisors, but later had to backtrack when they discovered more than 800 such cases.

Tofte questioned why police departments would provide data without being certain of the accuracy.

“It gets directly to the question of how much they care about this issue. If they were willing to just throw out some numbers that may or may not be true, then that’s disconcerting,” she said.

“I didn’t find one agency that was already tracking these issues when I asked,” she added. “This is the kind of thing that they should really already have had a handle on.”

Many agencies either refused to respond to her request for information or were unable to compile the figures. Despite 154 rapes having been reported since 1995, police in Bell Gardens did not say how many evidence kits were untested and how many had been destroyed.

In the report, Tofte urged the small agencies to follow the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department, which recently changed their policies to test every evidence kit collected, instead of waiting for detectives on cases to request DNA analysis.

Unexamined kits hold potentially crucial information. DNA analysts can extract a person’s genetic code from the collected samples and compare it to those of known felons or to a suspect’s code.

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times